‘Evolving manuscripts’: the future of scientific communication?

Chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport posits a future in which papers are revised as research matures, supplanting ‘outmoded’ publishing practices

May 14, 2015

Source: Universal/Kobal

If you put your mind to it: new methods of publishing could change everything

In years ahead, scientists may communicate their results through “evolving manuscripts” that are updated continually over a working life.

This scenario was put forward by Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, at a conference on the future of publishing.

Scientists could end up with three publications that span the whole of their career in such a system, which could end today’s “completely outmoded” publishing practices, he said.

Sir Mark was speaking at the second part of the Royal Society’s Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication conference, held in London on 5-6 May.

His idea would help to mitigate “perverse incentives” in the current system, he said. These include a bias against publishing negative results or those that confirm or confound existing research, as well as the pressures that scientists face to split a piece of work into multiple articles.

“We must facilitate new ways of publication…We have hardly scratched the surface of the potential of new publishing models to communicate science in much better ways than we have been doing,” he said.

An “evolving manuscript” would begin with a pre-publication, pre-peer review “beta 0.9” version of an article, followed by the approved published article itself, which Sir Mark dubs “version 1.0”.

Subsequently, scientists would update this paper with details of further work as the area of research develops. Versions 2.0 and 3.0 might allow for the “accretion of confirmation [and] reputation”, for example.

“The idea that you start from scratch with every [new] paper and you publish a bit of new data [so that] you slightly change the discussion is a completely outmoded way of doing science in the 21st century,” Sir Mark added.

“One could have a much more organic publication that would include the repeats of the work that would publish automatically alongside it,” he explained.

There would need to be a system to “Kitemark” an evolving manuscript and highlight the most up-to-date version, he said. A “golden thread” linking the body of work would also be necessary. “The thread would need to be rewritten on a continual basis,” he added.

“We could be in a world where you write three papers in your entire life, and they just evolve,” he said.

Sir Mark added that the system might encourage more debate among scientists about research after work has been published. Post-publication peer review so far has an “abysmal” record among scientists, he said.

There is an “issue with the culture of science” that means researchers are “pretty good” at criticising each other at meetings and conferences but are “very, very bad” at being willing to criticise each other in post-publication peer review, he said.

Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said this might be because at the moment the assessment criteria in science revolve around the individual. “People have stopped thinking about the scientific enterprise,” she said.

“If someone criticises your work, that is a jolly good thing; and if it turns out you are wrong, that is excellent because then you have disproved your hypothesis and can move forward,” she added.

Such issues are “fundamental to the philosophy of science” and to research progress. But they are now “associated with negative impact on people’s careers”, she explained.


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